Keeping Lincoln's Secrets

William H. Herndon, Abraham Lincoln's law partner and biographer, made a record of "secret and privatethings" about Lincoln in two memorandum books that long ago disappeared. Now diary entries have materialized, written by a woman who saw the memorandum books in 1866, and who recorded her shocked reactions to accounts of "profligacy" and "debauchery." A distinguished Lincoln scholar describes the discovery, and considers anew the collision of privacy and history
Mark Burckhardt

William H. Herndon, Abraham Lincoln's law partner and biographer, made a record of "secret and private things" about Lincoln in two memorandum books that long ago disappeared. Now diary entries have materialized, written by a woman who saw the memorandum books in 1866, and who recorded her shocked reactions to accounts of "profligacy" and "debauchery." A distinguished Lincoln scholar describes the discovery, and considers anew the collision of privacy and history

EVERY age needs its own biographies of the great historical figures. The questions each new age asks, the things it urgently wants to know -- and, one might add, wants to believe -- are expressions of its own views of the world and are usually different from those of previous ages and generations. The case of Thomas Jefferson presents an instructive example. Until fairly recently Jefferson's best and most conscientious biographers duly reported, but gave little or no credence to, the claims that he had had a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. In 1970 the great Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone addressed this matter in the fourth volume of his magisterial biography by soberly reviewing the charges, which he found unsubstantiated, in a brief appendix. Only four years later the historian Fawn Brodie published a biography that treated the relationship with Sally Hemings as a central fact in Jefferson's life. To the dismay of Malone and most other authorities on Jefferson's life, Brodie's treatment was not only seriously entertained but enthusiastically embraced by a large proportion of the American public. As a consequence, even before the much heralded release in 1998 of DNA evidence that lends significant (though not conclusive) support to Brodie's thesis, there were two things that most Americans claimed to know about Thomas Jefferson: that he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and that he fathered several children by one of his slaves. In what must surely be a measure of our times, it is the first of these accepted truths, not the second, that is currently being challenged.


Although Abraham Lincoln's intellectual interests were not nearly so broad, or his public activities so varied, as Jefferson's, the American public's fascination with Lincoln's life and political career is sufficiently intense to sustain the exploration of virtually anything that purports to be new or newly interpreted information. Because Lincoln is widely regarded as the greatest of all Americans, and is thus part of our national identity, a substantial audience exists for the revelation of even the smallest anecdotes and bits of incidental information. It seems we can never know enough about Abraham Lincoln.

No one has had more of an impact on how we view Lincoln's pre-presidential life and character than William H. Herndon, his law partner and biographer. And no biographer has paid a higher price for his services to posterity. For reasons that have been widely discussed by Lincoln scholars in the past few years, Herndon and his biographical efforts have been under a cloud of suspicion for a good portion of the twentieth century, but we are coming to see how much of the criticism aimed at him has been misguided or misplaced and needs to be reconsidered. It now appears that beginning about midcentury, Lincoln scholarship became so preoccupied with Herndon's supposed weaknesses and shortcomings that it lost sight of the magnitude of his contribution. Although Herndon was far from an ideal biographer, he was an honest and a conscientious one, and the biographical resources he gathered and developed are simply indispensable to our knowledge of Lincoln.

William Herndon was very different from his partner. Outgoing and exuberant by nature, he was as communicative and unbuttoned as Abraham Lincoln was guarded and reserved. An avid reader, and very much caught up in the philosophical currents of his time (particularly transcendentalism), Herndon was fervently idealistic and took readily to the role of reformer. In these respects he was certainly Lincoln's opposite. He was also, by comparison with Lincoln, something of a radical. Thus Herndon sided with the abolitionists well before Lincoln could see his way clear to stand with them politically in the newly formed Republican Party.

Herndon thought that by virtue of having been Lincoln's partner for sixteen years, and having been in a prime position during that time to observe his behavior and habits of mind, he had known Lincoln better than anyone else. Lincoln's other friends did not so much dispute this fact as regret it, for they did not regard Herndon as a suitable person to write the life of Abraham Lincoln. It was not that Herndon wasn't truthful and honest, for he was; it was not that he was spiteful or envious toward Lincoln, for he was not. It was more that because of his guileless and uninhibited nature, Herndon could not be trusted to present Lincoln's life tactfully, with due regard for the propriety and decorum that the situation called for.

One gets a sense of this from reports of the tribute paid to Lincoln by the Springfield, Illinois, bar shortly after his assassination. As Lincoln's former partner, Herndon was designated to voice the sentiments of his fellow lawyers and to acknowledge Lincoln's qualities at the bar. After praising Lincoln's "uprightness, integrity, cordiality and kindness of heart, amenity of manner and his strict attention not only to the rights, but to the feelings of all," Herndon allowed in passing that Lincoln "was not as broadminded as some other men." This candid admission caused Stephen T. Logan, Lincoln's previous partner and the leader of the Springfield bar, to rise and contradict Herndon. Herndon's audience must have known that he was not wrong; it was clearly the appropriateness rather than the substance of his remark that was at issue.

There were, admittedly, other factors. Those of Lincoln's Springfield friends who had known him the longest -- John T. Stuart, James H. Matheny, Milton Hay, William Butler, Ninian W. Edwards -- had in varying degrees drifted away from Lincoln, both personally and politically, in the years leading up to his nomination. They had all been Whigs together, but the breakup of their party in the 1850s put them on divergent paths. In spite of their doubts about the soundness of Lincoln's politics and their private jealousies and resentments, after his assassination they suddenly found themselves, willy-nilly, the guardians of his memory. They all had great regard for Lincoln's astuteness, as both a lawyer and a politician, but much of what they knew about the pre-presidential life of the martyred President was in these circumstances problematic: his disreputable family background, his compulsion for dirty stories, his often messy domestic life and less than exemplary (some thought loveless) marriage, his relative lack of interest in civic or humanitarian causes, and his long-standing religious skepticism. These things were seriously at odds with what the public wanted to believe, and it now became the solemn duty of Lincoln's oldest friends to minimize or remain silent on such embarrassing subjects, at least for the time being. Herndon frequently came up against this situation in his efforts to gather information about Lincoln. He told his collaborator, Jesse W. Weik,

You know that the People in this city do not like to talk much about Lincoln: they have no disposition to tell good things about him & when cornered the people here in private will willingly tell you Lincoln's weak points -- and damaging facts as they look at it. Lincoln outstript them and they in secret hate him.

In contrast, Herndon had always idolized and revered his law partner, and had urged his transition from the Whig to the Republican Party. His admiration only grew during Lincoln's presidency. He believed emphatically that by emancipating the slaves and saving the Union, Lincoln had risen to a position as one of the world's greatest men. But unlike his more conventional townsmen, Herndon argued that Lincoln's greatness could not be diminished by the truth, whatever it might prove to be. In fact, after investigating Lincoln's life for a year and a half, he came to the conclusion that certain truths that would ordinarily be explained away or suppressed by a sympathetic nineteenth-century biographer were necessary to the understanding of Lincoln's greatness.

The prime example of Herndon's doctrine of "necessary truth" is the issue of illegitimacy. From what Lincoln had told him directly, Herndon knew that his partner believed that his own mother, Nancy Hanks, was illegitimate. Herndon corresponded with informants from Kentucky, where Lincoln was born, who led him to believe that Lincoln himself was probably illegitimate, and Herndon began to see these circumstances as important to Lincoln's development and character. Having to grow up ashamed of his origins was, Herndon speculated to a correspondent, the "fiery furnace" in which Lincoln's character had been formed, and was in fact directly responsible for some of his finest human qualities. Herndon also believed that the near atheism that was evident in Lincoln's years in New Salem, Illinois, was caused by his despair over the death of Ann Rutledge, an ordeal that Herndon believed had produced lasting effects on Lincoln's mind and spirit. These were matters that might not ordinarily be touched on in the biography of a great national hero, but Herndon thought of them as indispensable to understanding Lincoln's greatness. In a characteristic passage on this theme he wrote, "Mr. Lincoln can stand unstaggeringly up beneath all necessary or other truths. Timid men would rob Mr Lincoln of his crown and cross ... through a suggestion of falsehood or the suppression of the necessary facts of a great man's history."

Herndon's readiness to theorize, of which this is a prime example, is one of the things about him that give scholars pause and that have helped to cloud his reputation. But to his credit, Herndon recognized that such disclosures, if they were to carry biographical weight, needed to be founded on very solid evidence, whereas what he had, at least in the matter of Lincoln's questionable paternity, was little more than rumor, and rumor from informants he had never met. He was inclined to believe that there was some measure of truth behind such persistent reports, and to resolve his doubts he decided he must go to Kentucky, where he could look his informants in the eye. He told a correspondent, "I am going to Ky myself in the Spring. I want to see men's & women's faces when they talk about these matters. I want to read their motives &c." His inability to make the journey seems to have been an important reason why Herndon could not get his biography launched in 1867, as planned.

BUT he apparently had more than just the Kentucky testimony to contend with. He was conducting the first oral history of a great American hero, and was finding out firsthand the difficulties of interpreting what people told him. He wrote to a correspondent in June of 1866, "The trouble is very, very great, I assure you. Thousands of floating rumors -- assertions and theories, etc., etc., have to be hunted down -- dug out -- inspected criticized, etc., etc., before I can write." Herndon often spoke and wrote in exaggerated terms, but it seems very doubtful that this remark referred exclusively to the reports about Lincoln's paternity. Even allowing for Herndonian hyperbole, such exasperation would seem to go well beyond the tangle of stories coming out of Kentucky. What, we may ask, could Herndon be referring to?

The most obvious subject of "rumors" running through Herndon's extant informant testimony is a slim thread of anecdote and insinuation relating to Lincoln's sexual behavior. Some of his New Salem friends implied that he had been sexually involved with women there, even suggesting that he was the father of certain women's children. Such gossip about a bachelor in a pioneer village is hardly surprising, and may be no more significant than his rowdy friend Jack Armstrong's standing joke that Lincoln had fathered one of his children. Armstrong's idea of fun, according to a mutual acquaintance, was to "plague" his friend relentlessly on this subject, which may simply have been Jack's way of acknowledging Lincoln's fondness for his wife, Hannah. A few examples survive of Lincoln's own stories of overnight encounters on the road with young women; although probably based on real incidents, these may have been colored by the familiar genre of stories about "the farmer's daughter."

Given the time and place of Lincoln's young manhood, this all seems rather predictable, and may tell us little beyond the fact that the young Lincoln was regarded as having, and no doubt did have, sexual appetites. Herndon made a point of telling Jesse Weik that Lincoln had "strong passions" for women -- a judgment confirmed by Judge David Davis, who rode the circuit with Lincoln for more than ten years. But both Herndon and Davis testified that Lincoln had scruples about seduction, and that his conscience "saved" many a woman. Though he believed, with good reason, that Lincoln visited prostitutes as a bachelor, Herndon seems firm in his contention that he avoided illicit sexual contact after marriage. All these things appear in Herndon's own correspondence and in the archive of letters and interviews he called his "Lincoln Record." But except for the stories about Lincoln's doubtful paternity, the record contains little evidence of really sensational gossip or serious speculation that needed sorting out. Where, if not in his collection of letters and interviews, were these "floating rumors" that Herndon was so concerned about?

It has long been known that Herndon did not put everything he was told into his Lincoln Record, whose contents he had duplicated by a copyist in 1866 and stored in a bank vault for safekeeping. Some things Herndon recorded in two little memorandum books. The first mention we have of them is from late 1869, in Herndon's letters to Ward Hill Lamon, a close associate of Lincoln's, to whom he had just sold the copy he had made of his Lincoln Record. Lamon was planning to use Herndon's material in a biography of Lincoln, but after he had a chance to look at the copy, he wrote to Herndon and complained bitterly that he couldn't be sure it was accurate without comparing it with the original. In spite of Herndon's earnest assurances that the copy was strictly accurate, Lamon harshly accused Herndon of bad faith. Herndon was in desperate financial straits and could not afford to have this lucrative transaction fall through. To placate Lamon, Herndon sent him a number of additional documents, including some in Lincoln's own hand, and he sweetened the deal by including something special: "I likewise send you two note books Containing some secreat and private things which I would let no other man have Even a sight at. These are not copied in your Record. Nor any part of them. Look over them and use what you wish.'' Perhaps having second thoughts about his suggestion that Lamon actually use these sensitive materials, he wrote another letter two days later, referring to the "2 little memorandum books" and saying that they were to be held "secret & sacredly private."

What was in the little books? Certainly they must have contained information that Herndon considered highly confidential, though sending the notebooks to Lamon scarcely seems consistent with his concern. Herndon eventually told Weik something about the books, and referred to them in a letter many years later: "The little book of which you speak is now in Lamon's hands: he will not give it back to me: it was only loaned to him. I'll tell you all about it when I see you -- can't risk the substance in a letter -- too long and too much of it." Here it is clear that the material in the book or books was too sensitive or sensational to write about in a letter.

As far as I have been able to discover, Herndon revealed only two items that were in the notebooks. The first reference is quite elliptical. In discussing testimony about Lincoln's so-called "crazy spell" at the time of his breakup with Mary Todd, nearly two years before their marriage, Herndon advised Lamon, "see Judge Logan's -- in a little book I last sent you." The other item we know more about, because Herndon described its substance to Weik in a letter shortly before his death.

When I was in Greencastle in '87 I said to you that Lincoln had, when a mere boy, the syphilis and now let me Explain the Matter in full which I have never done before. About the year 1835-6 Mr. Lincoln went to Beardstown and during a devilish passion had Connection with a girl and Caught the disease. Lincoln told me this and in a moment of folly, I made a note of it in my mind and afterwards I transferred it, as it were, to a little memorandum book which I loaned to Lamon, not, as I should have done, erasing that note.

Lamon, of course, had not put this episode into his biography, but Herndon went on to say that he was passing this information on to Weik because he was fearful that the memorandum book containing this note would turn up after his death and that the story would get out in a form suggesting that the incident had occurred after Lincoln's marriage. Herndon confessed to Weik, "The note spoken of in the memorandum book was a loose affair, and I never intended that the world should see or hear of it. I now wish and for years have wished that the note was blotted out or burned to ashes."

BUT Lamon, it turns out, was not Herndon's only worry. In the fall of 1866, just about the time he was preparing his famous lecture announcing Lincoln's love for Ann Rutledge, Herndon offered the hospitality of his home to Caroline Healey Dall, a traveling journalist and women's-rights crusader from Boston. Dall had corresponded with Herndon years earlier, and she claimed to have earned Lincoln's gratitude by supporting him in his bid for re-election in 1864, when he was being opposed by other women reformers. A strong-minded and forthright woman, Dall had a sharp tongue and a crisp prose style, and she earned her living by preaching, lecturing, and writing. She had come to Springfield to deliver a lecture on Lincoln, whom she idolized. Because of this, she evinced a great interest in the information about Lincoln that Herndon had collected. When Dall stayed in Herndon's home, he apparently allowed her to peruse his Lincoln Record. In the letter to Weik cited above he wrote, "Mrs. Dall did, I think, one day go to my private drawer and read part of the book, as I am informed." In fact, he admitted, "It is probable that I let her see the book.''

Caroline Dall regularly kept a journal, which is currently being edited by the literary scholar Helen R. Deese, but the portion of it relating to her trip to Springfield has long been missing. When she gave her papers to the Massachusetts Historical Society, she held back that portion, along with some letters about the Springfield episode that she had written to others and later retrieved. Deese has located the letters, and also some journal entries about the Springfield visit, in the Bryn Mawr College Library, where they were deposited a few years ago by Dall's descendants. She has determined that the journal entries are not contemporary but were reconstructed some thirty years later from journal notes made at the time, which are still missing. The reconstructed entry for Dall's first day in Springfield begins,

In the house with all the most precious relics of Abraham Lincoln. Just before breakfast Mr Herndon's son said to me, "I hear you are going to lecture on Abraham Lincoln. You wouldn't if you knew him as well as I do -- Good people didn't think much of him before he went to Washington." When Mr Herndon came down -- he showed me two bureaus -- one filled with political -- the other with private papers -- "You may read all you choose" he said as he went out -- I came here to read a lecture on Lincoln, invited or authorised by Governor Ogleby -- and it was to be given in the Legislative Hall.

When Mr Herndon came home to dinner -- I had read enough to know that I could not give my lecture. I was reading slowly through the private and personal papers, and until the morning of the thirty first of Oct. [that is, two days later] I continued to read, never stopping -- save for a little walk about town and my daily bath. Excitement forbade sleep.... When I told Mr Herndon -- that I had written to the Governor, that the posters must be taken down -- & the advertisements withdrawn -- he was startled. "I cannot stop you now" he said "but if I had known what would come of it, you should never have seen those papers."

Even though this has been reconstituted partly from memory, one can hardly doubt that Caroline Dall had seen things in Herndon's materials that greatly shocked her, and she went on to describe some of them from her notes.

Among the papers I examined ... are affidavits -- from prostitutes, prize fighters and the very lowest human beings of all sorts. Herndon's object in gathering these together -- has been to show Lincoln's essential integrity -- in every -- even the foulest circumstance of his life -- but Good Heavens -- rather than publish these, I would allow it to be doubted.

Those of Herndon's letters and interviews that are known to us contain no affidavits or testimony of any kind from prostitutes or prizefighters, and it is possible that these characterizations are simply a function of Dall's overheated imagination or faulty memory. There is no doubt that she got other things wrong. Some of her assertions are simply not credible on their face -- such as her claim to have read Lincoln's letters pleading for a release from his engagement to Mary Todd and Todd's letters of refusal. How Herndon could have obtained such letters and why such a communicative man would observe total silence about them are impossible to imagine. Dall also claimed to have read a letter from Mary Owens rejecting Lincoln's proposal of marriage -- a letter that Herndon could scarcely have acquired and certainly never claimed to have. In such cases it seems clear that Dall's notes and memory must have misled her.

One of the strongest impressions that Dall took away from Springfield was that she had seen papers indicating that Lincoln had retained lawyers in Virginia and Kentucky to find out who his father really was. She wrote in her journal,

When he was elected -- he was determined if possible not to enter the White House -- in the name of Lincoln -- and saw no legal obstacle to another, if he could establish his right to it. He wrote to lawyers in Kentucky and Western Virginia -- and told them what he wanted.... The legal investigation showed that Lincoln was probably the son of a more educated man named Bloomfield.

The notion that Lincoln wanted to change his name after he was elected is utterly bizarre, and the business of corresponding about his forebears is almost certainly a mishmash of what Dall read in the letters of Herndon's Kentucky informants and what Herndon told her about Lincoln's correspondence with a Kentucky historian, Samuel Haycraft. Several years later, in response to a letter from Dall, Herndon wrote,

You are a little Mistaken in what you say in reference to Mr L's writing to any one wishing to Know who his Father was. Mr Haycraft of Ky wrote to Mr L wanting to Know who his -- L's Mother was, suggesting that her name was So & So. Mr Lincoln wrote to Haycraft this -- "You are mistaken in My Mother" --

But Dall stubbornly refused to accept this. The following year, when she told Herndon that she was going to Virginia and Kentucky to investigate for herself, Herndon applauded her effort, saying, "I am in great hopes you will find much new, & startling information." But he warned,

You are mistaken -- friend -- about one thing, and it is this -- you seem to think that Mr Lincoln wrote to Haycraft for information about his birth -- relations &c &c. Haycraft wrote to Mr Lincoln. Lincoln replied, saying -- "You are mistaken in my mother." ... Lincoln Knew his parentage, birth-relations &c &c, and needed no information.

Dall's journal shows that she garbled or got wrong many other things, and this casts doubt over all her reports about Herndon's materials. It seems clear, however, from the tenor of her account, that what truly shocked Caroline Dall, and probably caused her to cancel her lecture, was reading what she took to be evidence that Lincoln had been, as she would have put it, unchaste before his marriage and unfaithful afterward. In a letter written to her confidant the Reverend James Freeman Clarke the day after she left Springfield, she said, "All the lawyers on circuit, and more dissolute women than I could count, know A. L's profligacy -- as regards women to be greater, than is common to married men, even here." She added, "I remember that when I read Aristophanes, I was thankful that there were vices for which the English language had no name. I had not been in Springfield then!"


Douglas L. Wilson is a co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, and the author of (1998).


The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Keeping Lincoln's Secrets - 00.05 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 5; page 78-88.

Nothing in Herndon's known letters and interviews would give rise to or remotely justify any such conclusions about the private life of Abraham Lincoln. That Dall must have gotten this extraordinary impression from notations in Herndon's memorandum books would seem to be confirmed by Herndon's cautionary letter to her a few weeks after her visit.

My wife tells me you read some of my memoranda, 'which is all right,' and yet I wish to say a word about it for your sake. Some facts in those little books need explanation -- others are false -- perverted & maliciously colored. Again -- some of my conclusions, made at an Early day when I Commenced gathering facts, have since then changed, or been modified: So if you want any particular idea you got from those memoranda Explained, denied &c, you had better write to me, Saying what you wish &c. &c; and if it is possible to do so I will Explain. You must remember that I am not responsible for what others say, and which I note down.

What does all of this mean? Well, one thing it means is that Herndon was far more discreet than his townsmen supposed, for he appears to have kept a separate set of books for the more sensitive and potentially scandalous allegations about Lincoln. His letter to Dall suggests that his memorandum books were a mixed bag of material. It seems altogether likely that they contained some of the stories about Lincoln's "weak points" that Herndon said he had been offered in private by Lincoln's acquaintances. But he made clear to Dall that the material in the books would need judicious sorting and qualification, indicating that it could not be reliably evaluated or used by someone who did not know the people and situations involved. This is almost certainly why he did not have these memoranda copied, and it may also be why he decided, albeit under pressure and against his better judgment, to lend them to Ward Hill Lamon, who after all knew and was devoted to Lincoln, and would presumably be able to judge such things. Dall's reaction showed dramatically what could result from the indiscriminate acceptance of such "floating rumors" and "secreat and private things," for she wrote confidently in her journal a few months later that she had definite knowledge of "the debauchery that stained all [Lincoln's] life from Ann R[utledge]'s death -- to the hour of his starting for Washington."

Herndon's cautious treatment of such "floating rumors" does him credit, but it does not mean that the reports he had collected were false. Herndon admitted that he simply ignored many things he was told that he didn't think credible -- which could be taken as an indication that he regarded the things he did write down as possible or probable truths. Thus we cannot simply write off the possibility that Herndon had evidence of a sort that Lincoln had engaged in illicit sexual behavior. On the contrary, this episode seems to tell us that there are some sensational reports about Lincoln's private life that we have never seen. Since it is impossible to evaluate such reports without seeing them, we have no alternative but to reserve judgment.

DO we really want to know all these things, and do we need to know them? Are not such things private matters that have little or nothing to do with the historical role played by a national hero? Theodore Roosevelt, in castigating the investigative reporters of his day, said, "The men with the muck-rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck." To appreciate our great men and women, do we really need to know everything? Herndon, who was an ardent theorist, argued that at least in the case of a great hero, we do. In a characteristically bold statement he wrote Weik in 1887,

The purposes ... of writing the biography of a hero are to make him fully known to the reading world.... all the facts of the hero should be told -- the whole of his life should be stated, including the smallest facts -- and including feelings -- thoughts, determinations and deeds ... it is the religious duty of the biographer to state all the facts.

This sweeping remark was cited by Herndon's biographer, David Herbert Donald, who observed, "Judging from his practice, Herndon meant that any reminiscence, idea or inference which he or anyone else might make was suitable material for a biography. Everything was grist for his mill." Donald goes on to list examples from Herndon's letters of the heterogeneous collection of things Herndon told various correspondents about Lincoln. Donald shows Herndon reporting on the activity of Lincoln's bowels, his being an ideal for America, his contracting syphilis, his "terrible passion" for women, his flawless character, the vulgarity and nastiness of his anecdotes, and his Christlike nobility. This hodgepodge of the noble and the unedifying helps us to see that contrary to what one might infer, the undifferentiated use of such details was not Herndon's practice as a biographer. In a comparison of this list with the biography he published, it becomes clear that Herndon omitted the earthier details and included only those that reflected positively on Lincoln. As a collector of information he may have made everything grist for his mill, and he may have been willing to pass on embarrassing and unflattering details privately to selected correspondents, but Herndon used great discrimination when it came to his published biography.

Herndon had propounded a theory of biography that he couldn't live up to; he thought he wanted to tell the whole truth about Abraham Lincoln but he couldn't find a way to do it. His philosophical conception of truth suggested that since Lincoln's greatness consisted of the sum total of his experience, it must be possible to "state all the facts" in such a way that even embarrassing and ordinarily discreditable information would help to reveal Lincoln's transcendent nobility. But how to do this without doing more harm than good to his friend's reputation? Before he began writing, Herndon seemed confident that he could manage it, as when he wrote Dall, in 1866, "I know all and what is best for Mr L. & the great Ever living universal head & heart. I shall do no one wrong but in the End literal & Enlarged Justice." But twenty years later, with the biography still waiting to be written, he admitted, "To tell the truth -- the exact truth as you see it is a hard road to travel in this world when that truth runs square up against our ideas of what we think it ought to be."

Caroline Healey Dall was in some ways the perfect audience for Herndon's theorizing, for she understood and actually embraced his aspirations. Even before she was over the shock of reading his secret memoranda, she found herself admiring Lincoln all the more. In her letter to Clarke she wrote,

I shall when I recover poise continue to think his life -- the greatest miracle: God's own way -- of stating the extremest republicanism. I have racked my brain in vain, for a single instance in History like it. And that he could ultimately rise to self conquest, ought to forbid the lowest wretch to despair. It is a better help in one sense than the life of Christ, for all his endowments were towards holiness.

Dall's hope that others would take inspiration from Lincoln's "self conquest" assumed, of course, that his moral failings would be told as part of his story.

This assumption explains her doubt, expressed in her journal, that Herndon was the right person for so difficult a task, and her ultimate disappointment with his biography. Herndon did not include anything about what she called Lincoln's "debauchery," and he touched only briefly on the ambiguity of Lincoln's origins. When the biography appeared, Dall wrote to complain that Herndon had not told the truth about Lincoln's paternity. He replied, "In your letter you state that Lincoln was an illegitimate and that I should have so stated. I did not think that the Conflicting Evidences before me justified the bold assertion in a book whatever my private opinion was. Had I been certain of the supposed fact I Should have so asserted." Herndon went on to admit that he "may have softened Some things," but added, "you will please remember that 20 or 25 years change our opinions of men -- measures and policies." Here, then, is at least a partial explanation for the discrepancy between Herndon's bold theory and his temporizing performance -- that he had moderated his earlier views of what were necessary truths about Lincoln's life, and that he had come to insist on a higher standard of proof for his published biography than for his private opinions.

Was Herndon merely rationalizing his practice, or had he perhaps shown restraint out of respect for the privacy of the people involved? Or both? He certainly withheld from his biography many embarrassing details that he believed to be true, as his letters and informant materials show. Though it seems doubtful that he ever contemplated using things that he didn't think were well founded, this could hardly be the reason for leaving out the sexual material about Lincoln, for he himself was the source of some of it. He repeated none of the stories touching on Lincoln's sexual behavior, and although he has been roundly criticized for portraying Mary Todd Lincoln unfavorably, he could easily have repeated stories that put her in an even more unflattering light. In fact, if Dall may be believed, he had collected stories about Mary Lincoln's own infidelity, which he also presumably suppressed.

It seems to me likely that privacy was an important issue for Herndon, probably more so than propriety, of which he was no great champion. Finding no efficacious way to incorporate sensitive matters, he probably felt an obligation, as Lincoln's close friend, not to reveal things that showed him in an embarrassing light -- or, as another close friend, Leonard Swett, had put it, not to "[develop] his weaknesses." But if Herndon was more discreet than his contemporaries feared, and deliberately withheld unseemly or embarrassing information about Lincoln, what does this say about his vaunted reputation for truthfulness? Actually, it says very little. As far as we know, he never wittingly published a falsehood about Lincoln. Donald, who was quite critical of Herndon, wrote, "There is not, to the present writer's knowledge, a single letter or other manuscript of Herndon's that reveals a desire or willingness to tell an untruth about Lincoln." There is no doubt that Herndon suppressed information that he believed to be true but that would have been scandalous, even if only hinted at, in a nineteenth-century biography. But we should note that in doing so, Herndon was simply doing what nearly everyone at that time regarded as his duty as Lincoln's friend and biographer.

A modern historian, even a friendly and admiring one, is of course obliged to take a very different view of his subject's privacy, a right that is scarcely recognized by the rules of his profession. Even a biographer who doesn't believe certain allegations or thinks them unimportant would nowadays still have to deal with them. They could not simply be ignored.

In a real sense it is not the historian but history itself that is the enemy of privacy. History, considered as the irrepressible urge of the human imagination to engage the past, by definition poses a constant threat to personal privacy. No better illustration of this unpleasant truth could be found than the famous story about President Harry S. Truman's wife, Bess, who was discovered by her husband burning some letters he had written her. The alarmed President is supposed to have pleaded, "Think of history." The wise Bess is said to have answered, "I have."

All who are fascinated by Abraham Lincoln face Herndon's dilemma. We want to know everything about him, but we don't want his image to be tarnished or his stature diminished. The experienced historian knows that these two wishes are basically in conflict: heroes and heroines are defined by their deeds, and the more we know about their nonheroic doings, the less heroic they seem. The reappearance of Herndon's memorandum books is, to use a Jeffersonian phrase, "among possible events." But even if the books were found to contain allegations of the kind that singed Caroline Dall's sensitivities, and even if these carried the ring of truth, it seems doubtful that they would substantially affect our judgment of the historical Abraham Lincoln and his standing as a great national hero. He was what he was, and he did what he did. The compromising stories Herndon collected did nothing to change his own view of Lincoln, and it seems highly unlikely that they would do much to alter ours.


The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Keeping Lincoln's Secrets - 00.05 (Part Three); Volume 285, No. 5; page 78-88.

Presented by

Douglas L. Wilson is a co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, and the author of Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (1998).

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